In D.C. and Shanghai, hints at Montreal's shared bike and scooter future

Researchers have sifted through heaps of dockless bike and scooter data collected in other cities, and their findings offer a preview these new transportation modes may have on Montreal.

Researchers have learned much about other cities' dockless transportation experiences

Jump, Uber's electric bicycle brand, arrived in Montreal in June. (Ivanoh Demers/Radio-Canada)

It's been less than two weeks since Uber's Jump e-bikes turned up on Montreal streets, so it's too soon to say if the dockless shared bikes or the shared electric scooters put a dent in the number of cars on the road or people using the Metro or the nine-year-old Bixi bicycle system.

In the meantime, thanks to research around the world, we can take some educated guesses from what's happened in cities elsewhere in the world that have had a head start.

So what can those cities tell us about commuter behaviours? Among the highlights:

  • E-scooters have become huge in the U.S., but in Washington, D.C., they don't seem to compete directly with the city's Bixi-like bike-share system.
  • In Shanghai, dockless bikes led a significant number of people to take fewer trips on that city's subway.
  • Uber discovered that their electric Jump bicycles take riders out of Uber cars.

Researchers have sifted through heaps of trip data collected in Washington and Shanghai, and their findings offer an interesting preview of the effects these new transportation modes may have on Montreal.

McGill University geography Prof. Grant McKenzie, who uses data to study how people move around, said "there are lessons to be learned" from other cities, though differences in culture and infrastructure mean comparisons only go so far.

Because of Montreal's arduous winter, a lot of comparisons "sort of fall apart," he said, although Montrealers take the annual disruption in their stride.

"Maybe it's a reflection of Montrealers' ability to adapt to the seasons," he said. "When Bixi comes back each spring, that same market, that same user base is there."

D.C. as a stand-in

A man rides an electric scooter in front of the White House in Washington, D.C. (Anna-Rose Gassot/AFP/Getty Images)

Winter aside, McKenzie noted that Washington, D.C. is a reasonable stand-in for Montreal. Both cities have a definitive urban core with major populations in the suburbs. Both also have a subway system built around the same time, and Washington's Capital Bikeshare is a shared bicycle system very similar to Montreal's Bixi.

Washington's shared bike system has an open data policy, and the city requires e-scooter and dockless bike operators to make their user trip data public — all of which means a curious researcher like McKenzie has plenty of information to look at.

McKenzie found that DC's bike-sharing system is used mostly for commuting, but shared e-scooters and dockless bikes are not.

"So people that have been commuting using these bikes have trusted these bikes for a number of years continue to use these systems," he said. "They don't seem to be that impacted by the dockless scooters or the dockless bikes at all.

"Where the change is happening is that we see the people coming to a city, people interested in leisure activities, people on the weekends, people that are tourists, tend to lean towards using a scooter."

The data also showed that the D.C. areas that recorded the fewest trips were "home to the lowest income families and the largest percentage of African-Americans."

McKenzie's study suggests this either means shared scooters and bikes have limited appeal to certain communities, or the services "are contributing to a further socio-economic divide fueled by technology-based transportation."

Similarly, a study of dockless bikes in Seattle found that more bikes tended to be found in areas with wealthier, more educated residents. McKenzie (who wasn't involved in the Seattle study) said that emerging transportation modes can "build on top of" existing socioeconomic inequalities, whether it's deliberate or not.

"I think you're going to find places like NDG and the Plateau are going to be clearly targeted as regions for the use of these scooters, and the downtown core, obviously," McKenzie said.

"But stepping outside of these areas I'm curious to see what kind of adoption there is, and if they are adopted — or if they get redistributed so that they tend to not be in these places that probably need them in some cases more than others."

Shanghai use hearkens back to 'cycling as social norm'

A shared bicycle in use in Shanghai. (Johannes Eisele/AFP/Getty Images)

In Shanghai, researchers surveyed 1,165 people who lived in 12 neighbourhoods and studied their travel habits before and after the arrival of dockless shared bikes. They found that the number of people that used bikes for transportation jumped substantially, from 33.3 per cent to 48.3 per cent, moving away from driving, motorcycles or public transit.

That study also suggests that dockless bike systems may be more effective in getting people out of cars than systems like Bixi that have fixed docks.

Shanghai differs from Montreal in many ways, of course. And the authors of the study also note that "perhaps a key ingredient for the success of dockless [bikes] in Shanghai is China's history of cycling as a social norm."

Uber, which introduced electric shared bicycles to Montreal in June, first rolled them out in San Francisco in early 2018. They looked at users there who started using the bicycles and found their total Uber trips went up, but their use of Uber cars actually dropped.

Uber also found that frequent Jump users displayed fairly predictable behaviour, using the bikes more during the day and less when it rained. They especially opted for the shared bicycles during times when traffic was most congested.


John MacFarlane


John MacFarlane is a journalist at CBC Montreal. He also works as a filmmaker and producer.